And so at long last the Legislature has found the courage to defy the single-minded pressures of the National Rifle Assn. and approve the country’s first state ban on the sale and possession of military-style semi-automatic weapons. The measures passed first by the Senate and then by the Assembly differ in important details, with the Assembly bill listing 40 rifles, pistols and shotguns that would be outlawed while the Senate version only generally defines weapons that would come under the ban. Reconciliation of differences must now begin. The important thing in that process will be to make sure that the vital principle is retained that some measure of effective control must be imposed over these murderous rapid-fire weapons.
Both bills, while seeking to protect the licit interests of hunters, gun collectors and recreational shooters, would impose penalties for the illegal sale or possession of semi-automatic weapons. Illegal possession could draw up to three years in prison. Possession of a banned semi-automatic weapon by someone who commits a felony could add up to five years to a sentence upon conviction. How great a deterrent these penalties will be to street-gang members, drug dealers and others who engage in criminal activities remains to be seen. But at least they indicate a seriousness of purpose behind efforts to control semi-automatic weapons that has heretofore been nonexistent.
The Legislature, which in the past has almost insouciantly killed all gun control measures, this time was prodded to act by public revulsion and anger brought on by last January’s murders in a Stockton schoolyard, committed by a man armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. That atrocity vividly and terrifyingly drove home the lesson that everyone in our society is now at risk, because battlefield weapons are so easy to come by andbecause controls on their sales are absurdly ineffective. In recent years, for example, up to 80,000 Chinese-made AK-47s, along with thousands of other assault rifles, were legally imported and offered for sale. Only this week did the federal government, as part of its anti-drug drive, move to suspend such imports.
The decision, which could keep up to 110,000 weapons out of the country, was supported but not originated by President Bush, who heretofore has been a rigid opponent of all gun control. It could mark a first step toward putting essential national restrictions on access to battlefield weapons. For what the Stockton massacre made clear is that action by a single state or even a group of statesto outlaw semi-automatic weapons can at best be only a marginally effective means of controlThe weapon used to kill five children and wound 30 other persons in Stockton had been bought, openly and legitimately, a short time earlier in Oregon. The unmistakable lesson is that acting to keep semi-automatic weapons out ofthe hands of criminals and psychopaths has become a national and not just a state or local concern.
To say this is not to minimize the Legislature’s accomplishment. It has taken a pioneering step, and it has done so in the face of threatened political retaliation from the quarter-million members of the National Rifle Assn. in California. What the Legislature has done ought to inspire other states to impose their own bans; most of all it ought to serve as a model for Congress. The public clearly and overwhelmingly supports controlling weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people. The Legislature has recognized the intensity of that support. Gov. George Deukmejian should do no less when the final version of this important measure reaches his desk.